Saint Etienne – Finisterre

Have you ever been to a Harvester before? Saint Etienne, I suspect, have. One of their most electronic pop works, Finisterre, was first released fifteen years ago this week.

After the brief sound of an amateur football match and the quote I started this piece with, the album opens with first single Action, which is either typically brilliant Saint Etienne or a bit nondescript, depending on your perspective.

Second track Amateur is indisputably great. The huge dance bass line and catchy melody are punctuated beautifully by lyrics like “a piece of Farnborough looking like Tirana”. That’s not the kind of lyric you come across every day.

This album was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a success. The two singles peaked at number 41 and 40 respectively, and the album stalled at number 55. But despite this, it was well received at the time, and I think part of its charm is the vocal interludes from Michael Jayston. The next one talks about “the perverse possibilities of the Barbican,” and you’re reminded of just how firmly the Saint Etienne of this period were rooted in London.

The instrumental Language Lab carries us through to the wonderful second single Soft Like Me, featuring a guest vocal performance by Wildflower. Where the first single might have sounded very familiar, this is quite unique in the group’s catalogue, as Sarah Cracknell‘s crisp vocals accompany Wildflower‘s gentle rhythmic rapping.

Summerisle is a nice gentle interlude, and then Stop and Think it Over takes us back to the more 1960s-sounding pop that characterised the earlier album Good Humor. Then the fantastic Shower Scene, bizarrely released as a Spain-only single at the end of 2002. It’s tempting to wonder why this wasn’t the lead single instead of Action, but if nothing else it’s a nice surprise when you do discover it.

The instrumentals are often among Saint Etienne‘s most interesting moments, and so it is with The Way We Live Now, which for me always evokes memories of the children’s television series How We Used to Live (that’s almost certainly not unintentional either, given the single of that name on the preceding album). It’s not quite instrumental actually, but Sarah’s vocals are more of an accompaniment here than a focus.

New Thing really should have been a single too, with its enormous rippling synth line. It’s catchy, includes some heavily processed vocals, and still sounds very contemporary. Probably. Equally, B92 (the one with the lyric “this is our wall of sound,” in case you had forgotten) is a great semi-experimental piece which takes you back to the group’s 1992 second album So Tough at times.

After all of that, the lo-fi sound of The More You Know does come as a bit of a surprise – and that’s the key thing with this album as it turns out – there’s nothing particularly new, for the most part, but it takes a fascinating journey through the different aspects of Saint Etienne‘s sound. Title track Finisterre is evocative and strange, with a fantastic guest vocal from Sarah Churchill.

Honestly, Finisterre is unlikely to stand out to many when they try to re-evaluate Saint Etienne‘s career. While it’s true that it doesn’t have many catchy hit singles, it’s also one of their most complete, fully thought through albums. Definitely, one of their best. I just wish I knew what the ending was all about…

The newly reissued double CD version of Finisterre should still be widely available from places like this.

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Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

Artist of the Week – Saint Etienne

You might recall that a few weeks ago I was re-running an old radio feature, the Artist of the Week, when as part of my radio show Music for the Masses, I would give a bit of history on an act. Let’s pick that up again with Saint Etienne. As always, apologies for any inaccuracies or omissions.

Saint Etienne are a group with a very unusual background. Before I mention anything else, I should perhaps make it clear: yes, they are named after the French football team, which probably makes them unique in one sense. However, their almost unrivalled technique of moulding modern beats to sixties melodies and beautiful songs makes them completely with parallel.

In the early 1990s, as acid house was in its wane, childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs worked with a number of guest vocalists on several tracks which scraped the lower reaches of the charts. The best known of these is their cover of Neil Young‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which just broke into the Top 40 in 1991. For the first album Foxbase Alpha, they tracked down a more permanent vocalist, who still remains with them to this day, Sarah Cracknell.

With their first two albums, they scored further minor hits and started to make a name for themselves, but they did not manage to break the top end of the UK charts until 1993’s sublime collaboration with The Charlatans‘ Tim Burgess I Was Born on Christmas Day. The subsequent third album Tiger Bay reached the Top 10 and yielded several substantial hits, including Pale Movie and Like a Motorway.

They followed this in 1995 with a compilation of the singles so far, which was heralded by their biggest single to date, the Motiv8-produced He’s on the Phone, before taking three years to rethink their strategy.

Unfortunately recent albums have failed to give them the success they no doubt deserve. 1998’s Good Humor brought us the fantastic singles Sylvie and The Bad Photographer; 2000’s Sound of Water barely broke the Top 40; and their most recent album Finisterre, released nearly two years ago, failed to make any substantial impact despite being one of their best albums to date.

However, that does not mark the end for Saint Etienne. They are currently in the studio polishing off their seventh full-length album, due for release early next year [in fact Tales from Turnpike House was released in summer 2005, roughly eighteen months after this was written], and just last week released another retrospective compilation for the American market, which included a couple of new tracks as well.

Astoundingly, they have now released nearly 200 tracks, hardly any of which will fail to grasp the listener with their strong imagery and beautiful songwriting.

The Stowaway Awards 2016

Here are the winners of this year’s Stowaways:

Best Track

As announced over the New Year, the winner of this year’s Best Track award was New Order feat. Elly Jackson, with Tutti Frutti.

Best Album

These were the nominees:

  • Camouflage – Greyscale
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  • Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  • Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  • Little Boots – Working Girl
  • Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
  • MG – MG
  • Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  • New Order – Music Complete

The winner is New Order!

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Air – The Virgin Suicides
  • Delerium – Rarities & B-Sides
  • Erasure – Always – The Very Best Of
  • Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded
  • Faithless – Faithless 2.0

With an exceptional selection of b-sides, mixes, and rarities, the winner is Everything But The Girl, for the special edition of Walking Wounded.

Best Video

  • Étienne de Crécy – Hashtag My Ass
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – All of This and Nothing
  • Hot Chip – Huarache Lights
  • Leftfield & Sleaford Mods – Head and Shoulders
  • Little Boots – Better in the Morning

The winner is Leftfield.

Best Artist

  • Camouflage
  • Sarah Cracknell
  • Hot Chip
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Leftfield
  • Little Boots
  • Marsheaux
  • Roísín Murphy
  • New Order
  • Soulsavers

Winner: Hot Chip.

Best Live Act

Winner: Little Boots.

Best Ambient Track

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre and Lang Lang, for The Train and the River.

Best Remix

Winner: Röyksopp, for The Presets‘ remix of I Had This Thing.

Best Dance Act / Remixer

Winner: Étienne de Crécy.

Outstanding Contribution

  • Erasure
  • Everything But The Girl
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Winner: Erasure.

 

Singles chart of the year 2015 for stowaways

Time now to announce the top singles of 2015 on the Chart for stowaways:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Remix EP (I)
  2. Röyksopp – I Had This Thing [number 46 in 2014]
  3. MG – Europa Hymn
  4. Little Boots – Working Girl
  5. New Order feat. Elly Jackson – Tutti Frutti
  6. The Future Sound of London – Point of Departure
  7. Étienne de Crécy – Hashtag My Ass
  8. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – All of This and Nothing
  9. The Beloved – Love to Love
  10. Röyksopp – Sordid Affair [number 36 in 2014]

Here are some highlights from outside the top ten:

  • 11. Moderat – Bad Kingdom
  • 15. Hot Chip – Move with Me
  • 18. Marsheaux – See You
  • 24. Leftfield – Bad Radio
  • 26. Sarah Cracknell – Nothing Left to Talk About
  • 29. Róisín Murphy – Exploitation
  • 30. Camouflage – Shine
  • 38. Shit Robot – Do That Dance
  • 44. Lean Jean-Marie – Bring it On
  • 50. Röyksopp – Running to the Sea [number 1 in 2014]

The Stowaway Awards 2016 – Nominations

At the beginning of the year, it’s always time to celebrate the best of the previous one, and so we enter the latest season of awards. We’ll look at the nominations for this year’s BRIT Awards next week, but first, more importantly, here’s a selection of the nominees for the 2016 Stowaway Awards.

Best Album

  • Camouflage – Greyscale
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  • Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  • Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  • Little Boots – Working Girl
  • Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
  • MG – MG
  • Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  • New Order – Music Complete

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Air – The Virgin Suicides
  • Delerium – Rarities & B-Sides
  • Erasure – Always – The Very Best Of
  • Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded
  • Faithless – Faithless 2.0

Best Video

  • Étienne de Crécy – Hashtag My Ass
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – All of This and Nothing
  • Hot Chip – Huarache Lights
  • Leftfield & Sleaford Mods – Head and Shoulders
  • Little Boots – Better in the Morning

Best Artist

  • Camouflage
  • Sarah Cracknell
  • Hot Chip
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Leftfield
  • Little Boots
  • Marsheaux
  • Roísín Murphy
  • New Order
  • Soulsavers

Outstanding Contribution

  • Erasure
  • Everything But The Girl
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

We’ll find out the winners in a few weeks’ time!